SPECIAL ANNIVERSARY OFFER: Now you can own an original first issue of Sports Illustrated!
The defection of Ichiro Suzuki, a career .353 hitter, isn't seen as all bad news in Japan, if he becomes a sensation with the Mariners and brings honor to his country
By Michael Farber
Resting snug on her mother's chest against the afternoon chill, Chinatsu Tanaka is a smiling, moon-faced, four-month-old girl who is one chromosome from having been called Ichiro Tanaka. Her mother, Aki, admits she rooted fervently for a boy so she could have named him after her favorite baseball player and didactic device, Ichiro Suzuki. No fairweather fan -- she hasn't abandoned the idea of trying for a baby Ichiro even though she's 41 -- Aki is on maternity leave from her job teaching English in a junior high school, a break that affords her the luxury of congregating with 20 other fans outside the parking lot of the Orix BlueWave's practice facility in Kobe on this blustery Tuesday. When instructing her students, she often uses Ichiro's name in sample sentences.
Ichiro is a good baseball player. Where does Ichiro live?
Ichiro is, indeed, a textbook player -- a seven-time Pacific League batting champion with gap power, a fleet base runner, a polished rightfielder and, now, the first Japanese position player to move to the North American major leagues, with the Seattle Mariners. Aki, with Chinatsu and a homemade sign declaring her affection for Ichiro in hand, would like to tell her hero about namesakes and junior high English classes and her faith in his ability to thump big league lefthanders, but in the two weeks since she has been keeping a vigil at the BlueWave's facility, he has yet to favor the fans with a word. This day is no different. Ichiro wheels a gray, bite-sized Nissan through the gate and into a parking space. Seemingly deaf to screams of "Ichiro-san!" he strides off, around a corner, gone.
"At first I felt sad when he signed with the Mariners," says Aki, "but now I want to go to Seattle to cheer him. I like his dream. His dream is bigger and bigger."
The reaction in Japan to Ichiro's imminent departure has been a touching mixture of barely concealed pride and barely expressed sorrow, the emotions of a parent driving his only child off to college. There's no more reason for the Japanese to be angry with the 27-year-old Ichiro for leaving than there is for a father to be angry with his son for growing up. Japan has been on a first-name basis with Ichiro for years -- he dropped his last name, Suzuki, in 1994, the year he had a Japanese Leagues-record 210 hits -- and his signing of a three-year contract with the Mariners, reportedly for between $15 and 18 million, has been treated as if it were a family matter. He's the special son, the perennial leader in the All-Star balloting, a cottage industry of endorsements, a player so admired that the yellow Nike Air Max '95 model sneakers he favored touched off a minor wave of Air Jordanesque shoe-jackings (oi hagi) by roving gangs in nearby Osaka.
Righthander Hideo Nomo's early big league triumphs with the Los Angeles Dodgers and righty Kazuhiro Sasaki's 37 saves and American League Rookie of the Year performance last season with Seattle stirred a nation, but Nomo and Sasaki are pitchers, not every-day icons. If the lefthanded-hitting Ichiro bats .300 for the Mariners, he will reflect well on Japanese baseball and, by extension, Japan. If he fails, well, that's inconceivable. The national conversation, played out in Japanese newspapers, concerns the degree of Ichiro's stardom in the U.S., not whether he'll be a star at all. "There's no doubt he'll succeed," says Isao O'Jimi, a New York Mets scout in Japan. "Defensively he's already one of the top players when compared to major leaguers. The same with his speed. If you hit .300 in the States, you're a real good player, right? Ichiro's first year I think he'll hit at least .280, and more than .300 his second year." Stronger praise comes from Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who saw Suzuki play while managing in Japan five years ago. "He's one of the top five players in the world," says Valentine. "He's the real thing."
The discussion in Japan has sweated the relatively small stuff: Ichiro's hitting technique, his mental toughness, the rigors of major league travel, the new pitchers he'll have to study, the adjustments to a new language and culture he will have to make. The central issue has been avoided like Ichiro himself at the plate with a 3-and-0 count and first base empty. The question shouldn't be how well will Ichiro do in Seattle, but how well will Japanese baseball do without Ichiro -- and the other stars likely to follow him? Put it this way: Is Japanese baseball on its way to becoming a branch of MLB Inc., a glorified minor league? "With every player who goes over," says Robert Whiting, author of the brilliant 1989 study of baseball in Japan, You Gotta Have Wa, "the Japanese grip on their own game becomes less firm."
"This might be good for Ichiro, but it's a tragedy for the Japanese professional leagues to lose their best and most popular player," says Masaru Ikei, political science professor emeritus at Keio University in Tokyo and a rabid fan of the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. "This is just like hockey in Russia. The best players all went to the NHL, and most of the teams in their pro league lost popularity."
Ichiro's defection, for what may amount to little more than a small bump in pay -- Orix paid him 530 million yen ($4.8 million) in 2000 -- probably would be devastating if not for the solid underpinnings of Japanese baseball. At the grassroots level more than 4,100 high schools and colleges have teams. Ichiro, who joins seven Japanese pitchers on major league rosters, said last week through an interpreter, "I go, but another star soon will replace me. This is good for the younger generation."
Japan has 12 big league teams (each also has a minor league affiliate) that are split into the Central and Pacific leagues, offering a brand of baseball rooted in fundamentals, a stable game that definitely won't have a work stoppage in 2002. (The last time Japan canceled games wasn't due to a tiff over revenue sharing or free-agent rights; it was because of World War II.) There are difficulties unique to Japanese baseball -- the disparity between the Central League and the weaker Pacific, the 1950s Yankees-like sway over the game wielded by the Yomiuri Giants, middling facilities compared to the new palaces dotting the U.S. big league landscape, a milquetoast players' association that didn't win its members the right to representation by an agent until four weeks ago -- but it's hardly about to wither.
"One thing Japanese baseball has in its favor is that some of its players aren't hungry," says O'Jimi. "A mediocre player can make $1 million. To have that much money without having to take the risks of going to another country is enough for most players. For great ones like Ichiro, who have done everything here" -- Ichiro batted .387 in 2000, after a late-season muscle pull in his rib cage ended his assault on .400 -- "the challenge of the next level might take them to the States."
Yomiuri may already be taking steps to douse some of those competitive embers. Multiyear contracts are rare in Japan, but according to the influential daily Nikkan Sports, the Giants plan to offer a six-year, $40 million contract to 26-year-old Hideki Matsui, an outfielder who last season hit .316 with 42 home runs and 108 RBIs over Japan's 135-game schedule. "Ichiro's signing is actually good for Japanese baseball," says Nobuhisa Ito, who directs the Japanese Professional Baseball League's international affairs. "It forces us to make more realistic decisions. In business in Japan it's often sentiment first, then business. That has made us a fat people. We have to lose the weight. Now we are heading in a different direction."
The decision by Orix, a leasing company that owns the BlueWave, to sell Ichiro's rights to Seattle is certainly one with which major league small market clubs can identify. Kobe is a western port city of 1.5 million, and the BlueWave is a middle-of-the-road team. (Think Pittsburgh Pirates with shorter fences.) Ichiro was one season from free agency -- a Japanese player needs nine full years of service -- and he told Orix he would bolt after 2001, either to another team in Japan or, like Sasaki last winter, to North America. Faced with a situation similar to the one that induced the Montreal Expos to ship Pedro Martinez to the Boston Red Sox in 1997 and a teetering Japanese economy, Orix agreed to "post" Ichiro, opening a four-day window for sealed bids from major league clubs. The Mariners, whose principal owner is Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi, trumped a handful of competitors with a $13.125 million bid that, upon its acceptance on Nov. 9, earned them a 30-day window during which to negotiate with Ichiro.
Ichiro is the first native Japanese player to leave under the so-called posting system, an agreement between Major League Baseball and the Japanese Leagues reached in the aftermath of the New York Yankees' signing of Hideki Irabu in 1997. The Yankees obtained the rights to deal with Irabu from the San Diego Padres, who held exclusive negotiating rights to Irabu through an agreement with his Japanese club, the Chiba Lotte Marines. To foreclose on a system that might have provided big league clubs with a pipeline to Japanese players through cozy team-to-team relationships, the commissioner's offices in the two countries devised posting -- over the objection of the Japanese players' association.
"If Japanese baseball people are worried about their game becoming a farm system to the major leagues, the posting system will only accelerate the trend," says Peter Miller, who represents the Major League Baseball Players Association in Japan, where he has lived for more than two decades. He's the son of former players' association executive director Marvin Miller. "This is a bonanza for Japanese clubs. Financially strapped teams will start doing it more often. Instead of opposing a posting" -- a Japanese team isn't obliged to honor a player's request to be posted -- "they're going to be pushing it."
Ichiro had been asking out since playing against touring major leaguers in the the autumn of 1996. "I wanted a change of circumstances in my life," Ichiro said last week. "I saw these good American players, and I wanted to play against them. Every time I would ask, Orix would say, 'No chance.'"
His yearning only intensified after a spring-training tutorial with the Mariners in 1999. He returned from that stint with some four-letter Anglicisms, a near-perfect "Wassup?" and a scraggly beard that further distinguished him in Japan's button-down baseball world. Ichiro is the upright nail that refuses to be hammered down. He shags fly balls with behind-the-back catches. Warming up between innings, he often shows off his arm by throwing across the outfield to the leftfielder. He's just as distinctive at the plate, cocking his bat toward the pitcher like Luke Skywalker preparing for a light-saber duel and then sweeping it into a hitting position when the pitcher starts his windup. Ichiro plays to the crowd and sometimes with the crowd. While his manager interminably argued a call last season against the Nippon Ham Fighters, Ichiro charmed the Nippon fans in the rightfield seats by playing catch with them.
On bustling Flower Street in Kobe stands a secular shrine to Ichiro: the BlueWave souvenir store. One third of the merchandise is dedicated to a player who won't be back next season. There are Ichiro cups, key chains, baseballs, action figures, jerseys, T-shirts, posters, cell-phone headsets, wristbands, stickers, calendars, notebooks, biographies, pins, memo pads, good-luck symbols, towels, postcards and flags. (Since Ichiro was posted, the store manager says sales have increased tenfold.) The Mariners are the only other team whose wares are on display. There is a small table with Seattle gimcracks and the message book in which customers have written nothing but warm, fuzzy thoughts on Ichiro's imminent departure. A monitor shows a continuous video loop of Ichiro's press conference, during which Mariners president Chuck Armstrong expresses confidence in Ichiro. With a three-year investment of more than $28 million -- $13.125 to Orix, at least $15 million to Ichiro -- Armstrong had better be right.
Seattle general manager Pat Gillick, who has seen Ichiro play only on tape, calls him a "Kenny Lofton-Johnny Damon type," but Ichiro, who probably will bat first or second for the Mariners, doesn't have Lofton's whippet body. Ichiro's 5'11", 175-pound frame looks bigger than advertised. He's thick through the haunches and has rippling muscles in his thighs.
On the afternoon that he sped past Aki and Chinatsu Tanaka and the other fans outside the practice facility, he ran, threw, stretched and lifted weights for four hours. He had business in Nagoya the next day, but he made it back to the BlueWave site for his workout, arriving at 10:30 p.m., something he does occasionally anyway to dodge the media. Ichiro finished his running close to midnight. "Sometimes I am nervous, sometimes anxious," Ichiro said of his new big league adventure, "but I want to challenge a new world."
Issue date: December 4, 2000